Ripped from the pages of an old science-fiction book, self-driving vehicles will soon be in our driveways instead of just our imaginations.
I was recently asked to do an interview with Easton, a student from Orchard Middle School. It was a chance for me to discuss my favorite topic, self-driving cars, and how Micron plays a role in making them possible. Below is a snippet from our Q&A, where I discuss the exciting trends, innovations, and potential issues with the adoption of self-driving cars.
Can you describe your involvement with self-driving car?
Micron develops and produces memory (components and systems) for many industries. You can find them in computers, mobile phones, tablets, TV sets but also robots, medical equipment, drones and cars. I am in charge of the marketing for Micron’s automotive memory. My team is responsible for any memory that Micron produces and sells into the automotive market.
Memory is used to store code and data and to run programs for infotainment systems, the electronics in the dashboard, the control units of the engine and for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). Those systems build the basis for future self-driving cars and they are potentially the most exciting topic my team is looking after.
When do you think self-driving cars will be available on the open market?
Many of the ADAS systems I mention above are actually available today. All of them together make a car self-driving. According to the SAE levels of autonomous driving, you will see that some cars offer Level 3 already. The industry target is to deliver Level 4 and 5 self-driving cars on the roads by 2020. As a matter of fact, the Japanese government has challenged their car makers to bring self-driving taxis on the roads of Tokyo for the Olympic Games in 2020. However, some analysts project a bit farther out for adoption with 25% of the new cars produced in 2035 will be self-driving. We may reach a contribution of 50% of self-driving cars on the roads of the world by 2055.
What do you think self-driving cars’ impact on the world will be?
It is very hard to estimate what the impact of self-driving cars to our daily life will be, but let me share a few that I believe are the most exciting ones:
- We will be able to use our time more efficiently. As a driver of a car you spend a lot of time watching the traffic and steering the vehicle through the traffic. If the car drives you instead, you are able to spend the time on something else (working, reading, learning, gaming, etc.) Business people could start to use the car more often for business trips for which they use the plane today. Imagine your dad needs to meet a customer 600 miles away from home the next morning. He could leave home after dinner with his self-driving car and sleep while the car drives him. Even hotels could start to offer rooms without beds, but that still have showers and breakfast for travellers who slept in their cars while being driven to their meetings
- Self-driving cars can reduce the average number needed of cars per household. If a family has a self-driving car, it can drive one of the parents to work in the morning and return home empty in order to take you to school afterwards. Let’s assume the other parent is not working, if so they can be driven by the car to go shopping or workout. After school, the car will pick you up again and take you to football training, then go pick up your parent at work.
- Self-driving cars can improve the mobility of elderly or disabled people significantly. They would no longer need someone to drive them anymore, a self-driving car could do the job instead. Imagine the advantages for someone who is legally blind and the opportunities that become available if their car can transport them automatically.
- Self-driving cars can reduce parking lot sizes and free up urban space. If cars can park themselves the parking spaces, then the space allotted per car can be much smaller (on average, upwards of 33% of city land is made into parking lots). We no longer need to be in the vehicle to park it, meaning there does not need to be space to open and close doors. Another bonus to self-parking cars is ease of parking. Say you go to the cinema with your parents on a Saturday afternoon. You can just have the car drop you off in front of the movie theatre and let it search its parking space by itself. After the movie, your parents could just call your car with their mobile phone and it come pick you up again.
- Self-driving cars will reduce the amount of traffic accidents significantly. Maybe close to zero. You may have found out already that 90% of all accidents are caused by humans.
While the benefits of self-driving cars are vast, we should not forget the potential negative impacts. Self-driving cars could potentially reduce job opportunities in some spaces. Just think of taxi drivers. Companies like UBER are already the main advocates for autonomous driving because the driver is one of the most significant costs for them. We could see similar situations for commercial truck drivers.
What are the biggest obstacles for adoption of self-driving cars? What are some of the issues that still need to be ironed out?
I think the four most important obstacles for self-driving cars are policies, ethics, security and acceptance.
Under policies, there are legal aspects to consider as well as regulations for insurance companies. From an international standpoint, we can expect that the worldwide governments will work on regulations for self-driving cars in their countries. For example, the G7 Ministers of Transportation have discussed this topic and they will do it again. From a local standpoint, DMVs of multiple states have already began to discuss self-driving regulations.
Today insurance companies insure mainly the people who are driving, which makes sense because people control the car and can cause accidents at times. The insurance company makes sure that the damages get paid when their driver is liable. But who's at fault when a self-driving car causes an accident? Some think it is likely that the car manufacturer will be liable; however, regulations are not yet defined. For example, Volvo has announced that they will take over liability for accidents caused by malfunctions of their Automated Braking Systems.
When I talk about the ethical aspects of autonomous driving I mainly refer to the question of: How can an electronic system make a decision on the life of other people? In the case of a potential accident, the system has to decide how to react very quickly based on the information collected by sensors and the connectivity system. In some rare cases braking might not be possible anymore. So the car needs to pass the obstacle on the road. But what if passing is not possible or it would hurt another person. How can the car decide which of the people involved it will hit and potentially injure? This is a very difficult question. I don’t have an answer for this and there will definitely be debates about it for the foreseeable future.
The security of the car has caught a lot of attention, especially last year when the Chrysler Jeep was hacked. It is bad if somebody hacks my car and attacks my privacy, but it is a different level when cars get hacked and somebody takes control of my car from the outside. This puts mine and other lives in danger. This means the security of the self-driving car influences its safety significantly. The whole industry spends an enormous effort to protect the systems of a car and its autonomous systems in particular.
We also have to consider whether or not as the drivers are ready to give away control. Do we trust electronics enough to give our life at 65 mph on the highway in their “hands?" Many people today still enjoy the pure act of driving a vehicle. Those may not want to use a self-driving car soon. That’s why we expect a long transition time until self-driving cars will be the majority on our roads. There will be a long time of conventional and self-driving cars being on the roads together. By the way, this will also require that the cars which do not drive autonomously need to be connected to all other cars and the infrastructure. This requires another automotive electronics system which is known as V2V/V2E (vehicle-to-vehicle/vehicle-to-everything). Another area where Micron memory matters in automotive.
What excites you the most about self-driving cars?
I hope by reading this you realize how exciting the whole topic is for me. It is actually difficult to say what the “most exciting thing” is. I would have to say it is because science fiction is becoming reality. When I was in your age, I read many science fiction stories. It was exciting to read about people flying to other planets or stars, communicating wirelessly and driving vehicles (some even could fly) without controllers. Just by telling them where to go. This all happens today. Guys like Elon Musk plan to bring people to the Mars, wireless communication is part of our daily life and finally the self-driving car makes another science fiction a science fact. That excites me.
Now that you have heard some of the topics that excite and perplex me, I invite you to learn more about Micron and its role in the automotive technology market.